Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
Also by this author: The Stone in the Skull
Published by Macmillan, Tor Books on February 3rd, 2015
Genres: Science Fiction, Steampunk
“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I'm gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, and I'm one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. Hôtel has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.”
Hugo-Award winning author Elizabeth Bear offers something new in Karen Memory, an absolutely entrancing steampunk novel set in Seattle in the late 19th century—an era when the town was called Rapid City, when the parts we now call Seattle Underground were the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes bringing would-be miners heading up to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront. Karen is a “soiled dove,” a young woman on her own who is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts into her world one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, seeking sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper-type story of the old west with the light touch of Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.
In the beginning, the book introduces the reader into the life of Karen Memery. We get a great sense of her inner strength and drive and her personality. Karen is definitely a passionate person full of fire. She’s fun to read about and even more fun to root for (which is good, because there are plenty of opportunities in this book where Karen could use someone in her corner rooting for her to make it through). We also come to understand how she wound up working in Madame Damnable’s bordello in the Wild West (with a steampunk twist).
Karens voice and dialect did much to add to her character and the setting. However, I have to admit (as much as I hate to) to having a hard time getting into it, particularly in the beginning. Since I can see that it added value, and quite frankly I can’t imagine Karen speaking any other way I feel a bit guilty for saying anything. But I can’t help it, I struggled to adjust to all the “ain’t”s and such. There are also places where I just didn’t get the colloquialisms. Maybe that just means I should get out more, not sure, but even after I adjusted to it and it no longer bothered me, I did feel like it slowed my reading down for most of the book.
After getting a good feel for Karen and her life, we then get a better picture of the world, and the machines that help make this story what it is. There are airships, and Mad Scientists that tinker and create. Some of these inventions are amazingly useful, like the ‘sewing machine’ at Madame Damnable’s. Trust me, this is not what you are picturing when you hear ‘sewing machine’. Actually, you will have to get used to ‘sewing’ meaning many things in this book as it is also used to describe the girls work at the whorehouse (since for tax reasons, they are listed as seamstresses). There are also formidable machines that are used to aid those with the most evil of intentions. And in addition to scary machines, I can’t forget to mention that there is a serial killer on the loose, just to add to the mayhem.
For a bit or romance, there is also a love story embedded in this. It wasn’t the central story by any means, but it was clearly a focus for Karen. Since she is such a hot and cold character, her love for this character came on fast and strong. This can be a deal breaker for me in most cases, but while I may have preferred it to be a bit slower, and did feel it a tad strange and sudden initially, I did still root for the couple because the pairing felt right to me. And it’s hard not to root for Karen, whatever her pursuit may be.
In some books the secondary characters seem to disappear from your thoughts the moment they disappear from the page. This is not at all the case in Karen Memory. I’m left feeling like there could be books, quite interesting books, written about the lives of so many of the secondary characters (either before or after this book, or both!). To me, that speaks quite highly of Bears ability to create realistic secondary characters with enough personality and information to leave the reader feeling like they are real people with intriguing stories of their own. I for one, would be quite interested in a book about Mary Lee, Francina, Marshal Reeves, Tomoatooah, Horaz, Lizzie, Madame, the list could go on and on. Pretty much all of the secondary characters feel like they could carry a story centering on them.
This is a fun book with great characters, I definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys steampunk, feisty female leads, the wild west, bordellos or any combination thereof, just be prepare yourself if you think the dialect (and words like ‘ain’t’) may bother you.